Theres no denying our dietary choices have environmental consequences. The committee in charge of developing the new American Dietary Guidelines, due for release next year, has been collecting data on the environmental impacts of food choices. A welcome move, and yet one that Congress is not supportive of.
Globally, it is estimated that agriculture accounts for 19-29% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Unsustainable farming practices and deforestation are implicated in the disruption of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity. As such, dietary guidelines cannot ignore the sustainability of the foods they recommend. If everyone ate the recommended amount of seafood (6-12 ounces/week), global production would barely meet demand.
Nutrition and sustainable agriculture arent always in opposition. To address the growing rates of meat consumption around the world, the Institute of Medicines Sustainable Diets report described the benefits to land, water and GHG emissions of diet changes driven by greater plant and less animal consumption. Americans consume more than 110kg of meat per year, far exceeding the recommended 23kg per year. Lowering meat consumption would not only improve the health of individuals but favorably impact the burden of chronic disease in the US, healthcare costs and economic resources. If meat consumption was reduced by 75% there would be a reduction of land use, water use and GHGs by 27%, 31% and 46% respectively.
The American Meat Institute has been critical of the dietary guidelines committees intent to address issues of environmental sustainability, claiming they lack the necessary expertise. The fear of losses by the meat lobby reflects narrow interests and warrants attention, not acquiescence. Others, such as Nicolette Hahn Niman, put forward the benefits of sustainable meat production to health and the environment. In considering all these arguments, it is vital to analyze the qualifications of those making them, the science presented, and other external factors such as funding and timing.
The stakes are high economic development and global sustainability are closely linked with demands on natural resources. Unsustainable food systems threaten food security. The Foresight report on the future of food and farming stressed that food is so critical to human existence, with implications for poverty, physical and mental development, well-being, economic migration and conflict. If supply is threatened, it will dominate political agendas and prevent progress in other areas. Ensuring policies are inter-connected is crucial if we are to equitably and sustainably feed the worlds growing population.
The Vitality Institutes Commission on Health Promotion and the Prevention of Chronic Disease in Working-Age Americans calls for greater cross-sector collaboration for health promotion. Nutrition guidelines can and should co-benefit health and environment. We are missing a vital opportunity due to short-term thinking, which will be far more costly down the line for individuals, communities and the nation.
At an individual level, few things in our control influence our impact on the environment, food choices being one of them. We encourage you to make a difference by positively acting on climate change with every food purchase and dietary choice.
Source of thumbnail: Board Voice
Source of image: I Love SBD lifestyle magazine